From its laughably lyrical opening to its bow-tying resolution, Lajos Koltai's Evening invites comparisons to Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies. Framed as the deathbed memories of a mother surrounded by her clueless children, the adaptation of Susan Minot's novel has some intriguing ideas at its core, but seems at a loss for how to exploit them.
Minot's co-writer (or rewriter?) on the screenplay is Michael Cunningham, the novelist best known for The Hours. It should come as no surprise, then, that Evening is The Hours-lite. Four of the lights in Evening's starry firmament once shone, more brightly, in Stephen Daldry's film of The Hours: Eileen Atkins, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, and Meryl Streep. Here, they're wasting time. And time, again, is the point, with a story that roughly interweaves present-day concerns with flashback memories.
Vanessa Redgrave plays Ann Lord, languishing on the deathbed of her family home. Koltai stunt casts Natasha Richardson as one of her daughters (Constance), and Streep and her daughter Mamie Gummer as the older and younger versions of Lila Wittenborn, the old woman's best friend (as Lila's oh-so-matrician mother: Glenn Close!). The crux of the film comes in Redgrave's seemingly addled whisper "Harris was my first mistake." As Constance and other daughter Nina (Collette) puzzle over a name they've never heard (Nina asks, "Mom—is this all just a dream you're having?"), the audience becomes privy to Ann's youthful pangs.
The 1950s flashbacks find Ann (now Claire Danes) as Lila's maid of honor, staying with the Wittenborns at their beach house in Newport (Koltai, a former cinematographer, paints the idyll in impossible, idealized sky-blue and grass-green). There, Ann whiles away the hours with longtime friend—and Lila's brother—Buddy (Hugh Dancy, in a lively, theatrical turn), but also finds herself instantly drawn to strapping wedding guest Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson). Forbidden feelings, kept secret, abound, but as memory tales go, this one feels rather inconsequential. An uneven, unfocused script and direction that seems intimidated by stardom do Evening no favors.
The central theme in Michael Cunningham's screenplay is mistakes in life and ownership of the lives we get. Koltai's biggest mistake is in not protecting his actors from cinematic overstatement. In one instance, Koltai allows Collette to overplay a shrill argument with Richardson, and at times, the close-ups press in a bit too obtrusively. Koltai could also be accused of over-protecting his actors' feelings: Gummer's too-placid mien makes Lila a non-starter as a character. A couple of sly scenes between Atkins and Redgrave may be the film's finest moments, though they do nothing to serve the narrative imperative.
Evening touches on the mystery of who our parents were in youth, and ponders both imminent crossroads and long-ago roads not taken. But worthy themes, tony climes, and distinguished ensemble casts do not necessarily a fine picture make. On screen at least, Minot's novel seems overcome by its most melodramatic instincts: the cliffside coastal romance (ill-advisedly, Wuthering Heights gets overt mention); the tragic, alcohol-fueled crash-and-burn of misspent youth (The Great Gatsby likewise gets a shout-out); the pie-eyed deathbed reverie of a fading mind. This Evening, turn in early.